What would I do differently ?

If I had to go back to being a postdoc, knowing what I know now as a PI, would I do anything differently ? Would it change my work, my attitude towards my PI, my understanding of all the crap that annoyed me while I was a postdoc?



This question was asked by a commenter to one of PiT‘s latest post, entitled if I could turn back time (confess, PiT, you are a big Cher fan…).

I have obviously asked myself this very question many times, over the past (sigh) fifteen years, and the answer I always come up with is the same: Not really. The way I see it, based on my experience, by the time one makes it to postdoc, chips have pretty much fallen into place, and the career prospects of a young scientist have been either considerably enhanced, or dramatically narrowed down.
The department or laboratory where one ends up, the person with whom one works, and even the research projects that one will carry out, are largely determined by one’s choice of graduate school and doctoral supervisor (which one of the two is more important is a matter of opinions).

Sure, I suppose I could have chosen slightly different projects, I could have tried to take charge of my scientific activity earlier on, as opposed to depending on my PI’s input as heavily as I did during my first postdoctoral year. Maybe I could have tried to involve a second senior person in my research, in order to be able to list him/her as a reference later on. I could have done “a little more of that” and “a little less of this” but… we are not talking anything substantial — I doubt if any of that would have mattered much in the end.
If I look at the career paths of my fellow postdocs at the time (most, practically all of us are now professors), my impression is that we have all enjoyed similar professional opportunities, and we could not have really done a whole lot more than we did.

That is the thing that I find most unsettling about the academic profession in North America — the choice of graduate school, the one choice that one makes early on, when one still knows little or nothing about what one wants to do, much less about how things work in the academic world, ends up having a disproportionate impact on one’s career. How is it possible ? Why is it that the sticker that one acquires in graduate school has such a long-lasting effect ? I think it happens through a combination of factors.
Intellectual laziness, sheepishness, blind adherence on the part of the community to “conventional wisdom”, the power of a network of personal connections established while in graduate school, all of that contributes to setting a freshly minted PhD on a fairly well-defined track — pretty much down to employment and funding opportunities.
Is it conceivable that, while the majority of research takes place in the laboratories of second and even third tier universities, the vast majority of funding, jobs, prizes, speaking invitations at prestigious conferences should go to scientists operating at the same few (as in, less than ten) universities ?

It should not be that way. I genuinely believe that graduate courses taught at Harvard or Stanford are no better than those at Georgia Tech or University of California Davis, and that even the graduate research work carried out at the latter institutions can be of the same level.
What is different is mainly the exposure to the broader community that a graduate student receives. One need only look at the list of speakers invited to deliver seminars at the different institutions over the course of an academic year, or visiting scientists.
And while it is possible, and common, for someone who has received his/her PhD at a second tier university, to do a postdoc at a first tier one, the benefit is not the same as having been a graduate student at that very same first-tier institution, with that very same prominent PI as a major professor.

A lot of talent can be found at universities that do not enjoy the worldwide reputation of the top five in the US, with peaks of absolute excellence — and it is my opinion that much of that talent remains unnoticed or underrated, mainly due to the lesser known name of the place.
Scientists, namely people who pride themselves of being capable of carrying out objective, unbiased and in-depth comparison, ought not be so heavily influenced by things like stickers, facade, letterhead.

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7 Responses to “What would I do differently ?”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    “genuinely believe that graduate courses taught at Harvard or Stanford are no better than those at Georgia Tech or University of California Davis”

    Not even the point. I do believe that the courses at Harvard are (a bit) better, not because the course itself is, but because the other students are – on average – better, and this provides a better environment for learning. The statement that the average student at Harvaleton is better than the average student at, say, Provincial Tech, is hardly controversial. But in hiring, inviting for seminars and all that, we are not interested in the *average* student, but in one *particular* student. Here, the institution is just the prior probability and nobody (I hope….) would claim that admission do graduate school always works perfectly in sorting all candidates into “their” program. Other things (e.g. publications) provide additional data. The important question is how much additional data is needed before the advantage due to the PhD granting institution becomes less important. And yes, I do think that the prior is often vastly overrated, but this critique remains valid even if I concede that education at a better place is likely to be better: After all, if not even the best graduate school can help *one particular* student to do good work, then it surely must be down to the student and you’d better hire the other one who got great results at Podunk state.

  2. Professor in Training Says:

    confess, PiT, you are a big Cher fan…

    Ummm … no, I’m not. But since you knew who sang that horrible, horrible song, I’m guessing you might be. Huh!?

  3. JF Says:

    “the thing that I find most unsettling about the academic profession in North America — the choice of graduate school, … ends up having a disproportionate impact on one’s career.”

    Well, that’s even worse I think. Because at the end of the day (or the beginning, as it were) one’s admission into graduate school depends quite strongly on undergrad results — granted, you make decisions at that stage, but whatever option is open to you, or not, depends quite strongly on your undergrad results…

  4. Counterfly Says:

    What a surprise- one’s career is built on every step you make. This is the secret of life- what you do matters. Sure you can get a faculty position from a blah postdoc, but it’s hard. Sure, you’ll get a fantastic postdoc if you come from Medium U but are ambitious and talented, but it’s harder and you’ll be less well-connected and won’t have been around as many good scientists. Sure, you can get into a fantastic grad school from podunk state…but you’ll be better prepared coming from Berkeley or Harvard. Sure, you can get into Princeton from a shitty high school, but it sure helps to have gone to a good one. All of the “overachieving” stuff, if handled correctly, is about opening doors for kids- giving them the best shot possible.

  5. Cherish Says:

    The problem that I see is that there is a somewhat impermeable culture at the big name schools. Counterfly is absolutely right. You can get into some first tier university when having gone to a mediocre high school, but it’s not likely to go well. Those who get in with a good background, especially if they come from families where they were exposed to science early on, are far more likely to succeed at those places once they get in. In a sense, I’ve seen that people who came in from high school fairly privileged are the ones who continue on through the process with more significant amounts of success. Despite giving people opportunities to succeed, it almost seems like there’s a pretty high level of predetermination.

    No one wants to spend time on someone who doesn’t already know the system. There are a number of people at Harvard who came in already knowing a good amount of what they needed. If you look at the courses at Podunk U, maybe you have a broader mix of abilities and/or exposure to some concepts, and so the prof has to work harder to get these students up to speed. The difference that the profs are actually willing to take the time, whereas at the big name universities, they can’t/won’t (depending on the person) and will let the student sink.

    So I would argue that choice of grad school may not be the point of determination…it may actually be significantly earlier than that.

  6. Hope Says:

    Just to balance things out a little …. I went to a big-name school after having graduated from a huge public high school in the south that was not at all challenging. I completely agree that I would have gotten much more out of college had I gone in better prepared. However, even though I had to struggle at first, and I didn’t wind up with a straight-A average, I do not regret having chosen that school. I met some amazing people there, and I learned that I was capable of a lot more if/when I truly pushed myself. I learned two of the most important lessons that one can get out of college: how to teach myself anything and where the bar should be set. I don’t know that I would have arrived at the same answers had I been in a less demanding environment.

    On a practical level, my degree from Big-Name School has opened a lot of doors for me … even though the place where I got my MS is arguably not as prestigious. At my current job, one of the people that hired me later confided in me that he was pretty sure of his decision because “you don’t get too many slackers coming out of Big-Name School.”

  7. Schlupp Says:

    Still no new post?

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